Ancient rabbis found all kinds of reasons for recording their discussions on Talmudic topics, and this eventually became the constitution of medieval Jewish life. It is the source for the Torah among rabbinic Jews today, binding on orthodox Jews. Legal rulings within the Talmud are called the Halakhah, and the interpretations and the stories that support the rulings are the Haggadah.
Technically the Talmud means the whole body of rabbinic materials, namely, the Mishnah and its later commentaries, while the Gemara refers specifically to the commentary on the Mishnah. In common parlance, however, the Talmud refers to the Gemara, or commentary on the Mishnah, written between 200 and 600 c.e.
The writers of the Talmud are the "sages" of various periods of Jewish history. The rabbis before the Mish- nah are called the tannaim, from a Hebrew word meaning "teach" or "repeat". The rabbis who lived after the Mishnah are called the amoraim, from an Aramaic word meaning "discuss".
The sevoraim come after the amoraim, and their name comes from the Aramaic word for "reconsider" or "rethink an opinion". Finally come the geonim, from the Hebrew word for "learned", usually applied to the authoritative later teachers.
The Talmud loosely follows the organization of the Mishnah, divided into the orders or tractates, then chapters, and then paragraphs. The technique of developing the topic is to go over each phrase of the Mishnah and discuss it thoroughly. Sometimes digressions slip in and go on for pages before the Mishnah lines are taken up again.
For several generations sages debated and consulted about the meaning of the Mishnah. These discussions were collected and passed down orally or as makeshift documents. Additions and revisions and shifting within the collections meant that they were not standardized texts. Sometimes free associations of ideas and even extraneous materials were included and added to the confusion of the collections.
As time went on, rabbis felt free to comment on the original commentaries in order to give clarity and relevance. The earliest comments were mostly law related: brief, apodictic statements of law; later, comments were longer dialectical treatments of laws and principles.
There grew to be two centers where Jews compiled available Gemara into their own Talmuds: Palestine and Babylonia. The Yerushalmi, or Palestinian, Talmud mostly reflects the work of Galilean rabbis, and it was completed by the mid-fifth century c.e.
It is characterized by brevity and an absence of clarification and editorial transitions, which is in keeping with its early dating. Its discussions are seen as elliptical and terse, but occasionally dialogues arise and show development of argument and resolutions.
The Bavli, or Babylonian, Talmud was completed by the year 500 c.e. However, there are discussions that show development over a longer time period (450–650). The Bavli is far more worked out than the Yerushalmi. It is more sophisticated and technical and formal for introducing source materials, considering objections and counterobjections.
The sevoraim took a much bigger role in the Bavli, composing entire sections, especially introductions and transitions. In general, the Bavli is of a superior literary quality and logical clarity, and it is much longer. The last period of the Talmud teachers, the geonim, consists of Bavli authorities.
The Bavli leaves out a lot of the first order ("Blessings") because many of the issues concern obligations that do not apply outside Israel. Harder to explain is the Bavli’s fascination with the regulations concerning the Temple—not found in the Yerushalmi.
Otherwise, the two books of Talmud mostly cover the same ground. The Bavli gradually grew in its influence over the Yerushalmi. It is clear the Babylonian geonim of the latter part of the first millennium c.e. were more prestigious than the Palestinian rabbis.
Diaspora Jews gradually adopted the Bavli as their primary book. Palestinian Jewry declined, while the Diaspora communities spread throughout Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. Another blow to the Jews of Palestine and their Talmud was the crusades.
At a certain point the Talmud always meant the Bavli, and that Yerushalmi only applied where the Bavli was silent or ambiguous. And the momentum continued: It became the focus of more and better commentaries and larger numbers of scribes. Modern scholarship therefore has more to work with in terms of Bavli materials, while Yerushalmi is less polished and extensive.
Early Mishnah study and commentaries were oral, so that the Gemara was in the beginning an approximation of the spoken tradition. There is no reason, then, to speak of the "original Talmud", and there are many parallel texts in various centers of Jewry.
Standardization of text has come largely because of the Diaspora Jews’ adaptation to the modern world and eventually their access to the printing press and formation of education institutions. All these factors stood in favor of the Bavli. It is traditional to believe that Moses presented the Torah as the written laws for Israel but that his rulings about various applications of the written laws were passed on orally at the same time.
As medieval Judaism developed more and more oral laws to interpret the Torah and to expand its application, the rabbis gave credit to various legendary nonbiblical figures (the "Great Synagogue" officials, Hillel and Shammai and Yohanan ben Zakkai). The only historical person to corroborate this process is Judah ha-Nasi, who presided over the compilation of the Mishnah around the year 200 c.e.
The mode of composition is in dialogue form, a bit like the dialogue between Socrates and his followers. Questions regarding the Mishnah are introduced and then the dialogue seeks after causes and origins. The lengthy digressions are the Haggadah, while the conclusions are the Halakhah.
While this method may strike the modern reader as drawn out and boring, it actually is a novel way of dealing with the complexity and monotony of legal rulings. The Talmud contains the rejected as well as the accepted opinions of the rabbis.
The Talmud is a book of laws and opinions on the laws. Rarely does it appeal to the reader’s sense of inspiration and elevated speech. To the casual reader the rabbis appear as judges, teachers, and public administrators, and that was their role within the medieval Jewish community.
The personalities of the thinkers—the rabbis—were not important in the Talmud, but the legal chains of thought were. Their genre was the text commentary, and even today the Talmud text page contains the text surrounded by several later celebrated commentaries.
The religious current of the text is deeper and more satisfying. The law is a source of God’s creativity and thus a gift to Jews and a joy to fulfill. The task of the rabbi is to apply this law to every aspect of life, an opportunity and not a burden. In fact, by expanding the oral Torah, the rabbis were imitating what previously God accomplished through the written Torah.
Thus, study and application of Torah were engaging in a form of divine creativity. Everyone was expected to join in the creative process, whether it was the ascetic holy man who studied 20 hours per day, or the common Jew who studied Torah only at the Sabbath service.
Rabbinic skill was expressed in finely honed argumentation, and the argumentation became a sign of holiness. The rabbis taught that they became a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" when they sufficiently studied and understood the Torah.
Rabbis were elected and rated according to their command of the Talmud. As medieval rabbis devoted themselves to Talmudic studies, they enhanced their stature as community leaders. As a result they had to work out their relationships with the political rulers of the lands where their Jewish followers were.
The Roman authorities, the Byzantine governors, and even the designated Jewish officials (the Jewish patriarchs and the exiliarchs) eventually had to accommodate the rabbis. Nonetheless, the rabbis kept a low political profile.
The rabbis found their niche in the internal religious life of the Jews (marriages, divorces, religious rituals, calendar, and the education of the youth). Their opinions were treasured much like medieval Christians valued the fathers of the church.
The Talmuds are the major sources of information about Jewish culture and religion in the period of late antiquity and the early medieval period. Often its pages reveal even earlier stages of Jewish life and culture—perhaps preserving fragments of teachers and teachings of the period after the last writings of the Bible and before the completion of the New Testament. The problem is that the Talmuds add layer upon layer of editing so that the original historical kernel cannot be identiﬁ ed with certainty.
Another problem with determining the historicity of the Talmud came from outsiders: Christians often censored or destroyed copies of the Talmud in various regions of Europe. Often, in order to avoid destruction, Jews submitted the Talmud to censorship so that early rabbinic discussion of such topics as Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth or early Christianity was lost or scattered.